Law schools should rethink admissions process to tackle future challenges: CJ Sundaresh Menon

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (left) with Dr Kevin Tan and NUS Law Dean Professor Simon Chesterman at the NUS Law anniversary dinner on Oct 20.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (left) with Dr Kevin Tan and NUS Law Dean Professor Simon Chesterman at the NUS Law anniversary dinner on Oct 20.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
At the cake cutting and toast are (from left) Prof Tan Lee Meng, Dr Thio Su Mien, Prof Tommy Koh, Prof Simon Chesterman, Prof S Jayakumar, Prof Tan Sook Yee, Prof Chin Tet Yung and Prof Tan Cheng Han.
At the cake cutting and toast are (from left) Prof Tan Lee Meng, Dr Thio Su Mien, Prof Tommy Koh, Prof Simon Chesterman, Prof S Jayakumar, Prof Tan Sook Yee, Prof Chin Tet Yung and Prof Tan Cheng Han.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - With the legal profession no longer jurisdiction-bound, and technology disrupting lawyers' jobs, law schools should reinvent themselves, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

This could be done by rethinking curricula, assessing applicants based on more than grades, or expanding graduate programmes for those who wish to make a mid-career switch to law, he added on Friday (Oct 20).

Speaking at the 60th anniversary gala of National University of Singapore's (NUS) law faculty at Shangri-la Hotel, he said: "Conditions around us are changing rapidly and dramatically and it is critical that this law school, which has already achieved so much, is ready to meet the future."

First, the legal practice is no longer jurisdiction-bound and "lawyers who hope to get by with a purely domestic focus will struggle", said CJ Menon.

The Supreme Court has seen more lawyers mounting arguments based on foreign and international law. Many major commercial transactions allow dispute resolution with the use of domestic, foreign, or international law as well, he added.

"Opportunities abound for those able to ride this tide of internationalisation, and as a relatively small jurisdiction, this is something we must prepare our graduates for," he said.

Second, with automation and artificial intelligence, such as online dispute resolution platforms diminishing some work traditionally done by lawyers, he said there is a need to think "radically" the way future lawyers are taught.

Current initiatives by the Singapore Academy of Law to help practitioners adjust may "barely scratch the surface" of what is needed to be done as well, he added.

CJ Menon said he hopes to identify more chances for students to take part in pro bono activities, and that NUS Law could consider other ways to entrench a focus on service.

In view of the challenges ahead, he added that it may be time to rethink the admissions process, such as by considering a record of voluntary work and community service, or diversity of life experiences in applicants.

The graduate programme could also be expanded for those who already have a first degree but wish to make a mid-career switch to law, he said.

"There is security in attracting the best of each high school cohort but they may not necessarily prove to be the best material for the profession decades down the line," said CJ Menon on Friday.

"It will take courage to depart from a tried and tested path but that should not deter us at this time of dramatic change."

He cited his conversation, at a conference of Chief Justices last month, with the Chief Justice of Bhutan, who explained how the country's metric of Gross National Happiness with its emphasis on sustainable and equitable development, environmental conservation and sound governance has infused every aspect of Bhutan's society.

"I mention this as an example of having the courage to chart a radically different course," added CJ Menon.

"That might be just what we need at this moment in our history. Perhaps a broad-based conversation about what a career in the law should mean in this age and how we should best select and prepare aspirants for this critical vocation would not be out of place."

Among those present at the dinner were Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran, former law dean Dr Thio Su-Mien, former deputy prime minister and law minister S. Jayakumar, and former chief justice Chan Sek Keong.

The event also saw the launch of an anniversary book, written by legal historian Dr Kevin Tan, charting NUS Law School's 60 years of development.

Its birth could be traced back to 1953 when Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, then the Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, thought that a new law school in Singapore would foster constructive academic discourse between aspiring lawyers and scholars of other disciplines.

CJ Menon said the idea took root and developed in rather more pragmatic circumstances as Singapore started moving from being a colony towards self-government, and having its own law school seemed more in keeping with the needs and aspirations of the time.